COLUMBIA - Chris Raffield pushes himself to his feet on the cane he needs to support his fragile frame. Dozens of lawmakers are rushing through the Statehouse lobby on their way to lunch, and there is little time to waste.
As the hordes of lobbyists descend during the downtime, he scans for any House member he might recognize.
An ex-cop who used to write people tickets for marijuana possession, Raffield wants one of America's most conservative states to adopt a law that allows for medical marijuana.
He thinks he can make a good case, even to the skeptical.
During the past six years, a stream of illnesses have ravaged his once muscular, 330-pound body.
He currently weighs 140 pounds and says he often can't bear the pain and the cocktail of prescription drugs that put him in a stupor. There were times when he wanted to die.
Then, with doctors whispering it would be OK, a friend persuaded him to try marijuana.
The illegal drug has allowed him to eat and feel better, even regain something of a normal life. He doesn't mind sharing his story and doubts police will waste their time arresting a sickly former state trooper.
"I'm a Christian," he said. "I don't see how you can take something away ... and not give it to people who need it."
Finding an audience
Down on the cavernous first floor of the Statehouse, Raffield watches legislators glide toward the exit, lunch beckoning. He's not going to catch them.
New plan: he'll try to find them in their offices, down the escalator, through the garage. "There's a lot of walking in these places, I'll tell you what," he said.
Whoom, whoom, whoom.
The escalator stairs rush by. Cane in hand, he nervously peers over them like he's trying to see to the bottom of a murky pond, waiting for the right time to make his move.
Raffield has spent weeks at a time unable to leave his home, debilitated by painkillers, more than a dozen prescription drugs and the illnesses that have taken away his life. A "sleeping beauty" disorder means he needs to take a pill just to wake up.
Spinal tumors and back surgeries have left him ram-rod straight, hardly able to turn his neck. Multiple sclerosis means a hot day is unbearable. Parkinson's makes him shake. And, before he began self-medicating with marijuana, seizures left him waking up with no memory of what had happened and had terrified his wife.
"When my health went," he said, "it went fast."
Doctors don't know why his body is shutting down. His only theory is that he has a short life expectancy; his mother died before the age of 40.
Raffield thinks that when legislators hear the story combined with the facts - like a U.S. patent that extols marijuana's benefits - they'll be on his side. But he has trouble matching legislators' names with faces. His only guide is a crumpled list of the 19 House members who voted against a bill that allows those with severe epilepsy - especially young children - to use a marijuana extract called CBD oil for treatment.
He figures he should start with them.
In 1996, California became the first state to allow medical marijuana. Fourteen years earlier, South Carolina had passed a similar measure, but it wasn't a serious law.
It asks the state health department to buy marijuana and distribute it - a thorny proposition that has never actually occurred.
This year, the effort got a shot in the arm when the CBD oil bill passed, advocates said. Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House minority leader who has pushed the issue, said patients like Raffield and others will be key to seeing passage of a full medical marijuana measure.
"(Opposing lawmakers) are going to have to look into those people's eyes that are suffering from cancer...and tell them 'no,'" he said.
Attitudes on marijuana have changed significantly. In the past few years, acceptance has accelerated as Colorado and Washington state have legalized pot for recreational use, in defiance of federal law. Seventeen states, including North Carolina, have decriminalized or lessened penalties for marijuana possession, according to NORML, an advocacy group. The GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted in May to block the federal government from interfering with states that permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Five of South Carolina's seven representatives voted for the measure. Republican Reps. Joe Wilson and Trey Gowdy voted against it.
An April Winthrop University poll showed that nearly 72 percent of South Carolinians support the use of marijuana for medical reasons. Nearly six in 10, however, oppose marijuana for recreational use, the poll found.
Medical marijuana is still controversial and largely opposed by the medical establishment. The American Medical Association and others say that, on the whole, marijuana is illegal, dangerous and harmful to most people's health. Few extensive studies have been done on its effects.
Raffield wants South Carolina to become the first Southern state to join the other 22 states and the District of Columbia that allow for medical marijuana. Proponents say the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law won't be a strong argument. Ignoring Washington is a proud political tradition in South Carolina.
Sen. Tom Davis, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Beaufort who helped shepherd the CBD bill, said he was "astounded" at the pace at which the measure moved through the General Assembly.
"It shows just how much people's minds are changing," he said.
Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, who supports medicinal marijuana, said he could foresee the House passing a full medical marijuana bill when the General Assembly reconvenes next year. While there are plenty of Republicans inclined to agree, Merrill said the trouble will come when a bill heads to the Senate.
He called some senators stuck in "medieval times."
One legislator who would have a key say in the bill is Sen. Larry Martin, the Republican Judiciary committee chairman from Pickens, who represents one of the most conservative corners of the state. While he's sympathetic, he said medical marijuana is unproven and illegal.
"It's going to be more widely accepted," he said, "and I think that's a negative thing."
A last resort
Raffield first discovered the benefits of marijuana through a prescription - Marinol, a marijuana-based appetite stimulant.
After Medicaid stopped paying for Marinol because he doesn't have AIDS or cancer, Raffield was faced with little income and an $800 bill for the drug that he couldn't afford.
A friend suggested he try marijuana. At that point, he felt he had nothing to lose.
"I was watching him die," his wife, Jenny Raffield, said through tears. "You don't know what that's like to watch someone you love die and just know there's nothing you can do to help him."
Jenny said she's seen a huge difference since he began to use marijuana, often in edible form. He participates in the animal rescue they both run out of their home in Dalzell, God's Creatures Deserve to Live, Inc. "I've seen him be able to actually enjoy life again somewhat," she said. "This has given his life back."
Raffield loved his job as a state trooper until his medical problems mounted and he had to leave in 2008. That 17-year law enforcement career makes him an unlikely medical marijuana advocate, but the cause gives him purpose. Plus, the bed-ridden and dying don't have a lobbyist in Columbia. "I'm better off than they are," he said.
That's why, despite the escalator and the trek through the parking garage, Raffield makes it to Blatt, where the House members' offices are.
He runs into Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, one of the most conservative members of the House. He voted against the CBD oil bill. He also happened to be sitting at his desk with a plate of sausage and shrimp when Raffield found him and sat down.
Smith tells Raffield he had someone from Aiken call him wanting to grow marijuana in his backyard. It's not something he would support. But, Smith said, he might not oppose medicinal marijuana as long as it were properly regulated.
Afterward, Raffield isn't so sure. "I'd say 50-50. He's listening, but I don't feel like he heard me."
On his last day at the Statehouse, his 11th visit in late May, Raffield is excited.
He had run into Sen. Davis, who said he wants to take the medical marijuana argument to the conservative Upstate and hold hearings on the issue, and he wants Raffield's help.
Raffield is a little nervous about whether he would be up for that. There were times when he couldn't make the trip from his home in Sumter County to Columbia because painkillers kept him in bed.
"I've got to get ready," he said of Davis's hearings. "I want to be able to go wherever he wants me to go."
Until then, he plans to persuade more lawmakers to his side.
Rep. Phil Owens's door is closed, but there is an assistant in the outer office. Out of breath, Raffield takes a seat. The assistant slips in and asks if the Pickens Republican would see Raffield.
Bad news. Owens is on the phone - he'll have to get back to him.
Raffield smiles, and leaning heavily on his cane, he makes his way back toward the elevator.
That will probably have to be all for today. His car is parked far away, and then there's the drive home.
"This is the hardest part," Raffield said. "He didn't want to talk about it."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837.
Provided A portrait on the wall of Chris Raffield’s house in Dalzell, S.C. shows him as a state trooper. He was forced to retire in 2008 after 17 years due to illness.×
Grace Beahm/Staff Chris Raffield in June.×
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